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– In an exclusive interview with IPS, Ambassador Cindy Hensley McCain, Permanent Representative of the US Mission to the Food and Agriculture Organization on the United Nations (FAO) in Rome, Italy, shares her thoughts on food security, sustainable food systems, the impact of climate change on food production, conflicts and the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, and her plans while working with the FAO, International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and World Food Programme (WFP) with Farhana Haque Rahman and Sania Farooqui.
The Biden Administration swore in ambassador Cindy Hensley McCain to serve as Permanent Representative of the US Mission to the UN Agencies in Rome on November 5, 2021. She has dedicated her life to improving the lives of those less fortunate both in the United States and worldwide. She is the former Chair of the Board of Trustees of the McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University, where she oversaw the organization’s focus on advancing character-driven global leadership based on security, economic opportunity, freedom, and human dignity, as well as chairing the Institute’s Human Trafficking Advisory Council.
In addition to her work at the McCain Institute, she served on the Board of Directors of Project CURE, CARE, Operation Smile, HaloTrust, and the Advisory Boards of Too Small To Fail and Warriors and Quiet Waters. She was the chairperson of her family’s business, Hensley Beverage Company, one of the largest Anheuser-Busch distributors in the US. McCain is the wife of the late US Senator John McCain. Together, they have four children.
IPS: There has been a dramatic worsening of world hunger since 2020. While the pandemic’s impact is yet to be fully mapped, according to WHO, more than 2.3 billion people (or 30 percent of the global population) have lacked year-round access to adequate food, and malnutrition continues to persist in all its forms, with children paying a high price. What are your concerns on this crisis, and what can be done to achieve food security and improve nutrition within reach of all those impacted?
UN Mission Embassy, Ambassador of the United States to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture, Cindy McCain.
Credit: UN/Cristiano Minichiello.
Cindy McCain: In my new role as US Ambassador to the UN Agencies in Rome, my top priority is to bring high-level attention to the urgent food security crisis that you mention, one that is being felt particularly in places like Afghanistan, Yemen, the Horn of Africa, the Sahel, and now Ukraine. I also want to raise the alarm about the broader, far-reaching threats to our global food systems—and to work together with other members of the United Nations to build resilient, sustainable food systems for everyone.
IPS: The FAO has said that the land and water resources farmers rely on are stressed to a ‘breaking point’, and there will be two billion more mouths to feed by 2050. What are your thoughts on this, and what can be done to find sustainable solutions and adapt to these changing climate challenges?
McCain: To meet these challenges, we need to dramatically ramp up innovation and cooperation to both mitigate and adapt to climate change, particularly in agriculture. Our food systems are vulnerable, and the sector must urgently adapt.
Agriculture must also be part of the solution to climate change. Food production and food systems, in general, are responsible for a quarter to a third of greenhouse gas emissions. We need new technologies, products, and approaches to food production, consumption, and food loss and waste.
At COP26, the UAE and the United States announced the creation of the Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate, or AIM4C, with the goal of accelerating the search for breakthrough solutions in the agricultural sector. AIM4C is promoting significantly increased investment in support of climate-smart agriculture and food system innovation.
Already, more than 40 countries and over a hundred partners – including Lightworks at Arizona State University – my home state, and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization – have joined forces under AIM4C.
Additionally, President Biden launched the Global Methane Pledge at COP26 with the goal of reducing global methane emissions at least by 30% by 2030, the minimum required to keep 1.5C within reach. The Pledge now has over 110 country participants, including six of the top eight emitters of agricultural methane.
We can cut agricultural emissions through measures that also enhance agricultural productivity in developing countries—which has the added benefit of reducing global pressure to convert rainforests to farms. For example, typical US and EU dairy operations produce milk with 1/8th the emissions of typical Indian and African operations. Increasing productivity in developing countries benefits farmers while tackling climate change by cutting methane emissions and deforestation – it’s a win-win.
IPS: Climate change is threatening food production, which means there is a need for more investments, including creating new jobs to adapt to climate change to help small-scale farmers currently producing food for 2 billion people – or global stability is at risk. What is your view about IFAD’s new investment programme to boost private funding of rural businesses and small-scale farmers?
Ambassador Cindy McCain with women at an IFAD financed women’s cassava cooperative. Credit: IFAD
McCain: Truly sustainable food systems must be economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable. IFAD is right to consider the private sector an indispensable partner in improving smallholder farmers’ access to markets, capital, technology, and innovation – the same tools producers in developed countries rely on. These partnerships bolster rural resilience in the face of increased conflict, COVID-19, climate change, and other acute and systematic threats. The United States is proud to be IFAD’s largest current and historical donor. We appreciate IFAD’s focus on the livelihoods of rural, smallholder farmers in the world’s least developed countries, who account for the majority of the world’s poor.
IPS: More than 800 million people across the globe go to bed hungry every night, most of them smallholder farmers who depend on agriculture to make a living and feed their families, many of whom are also women. What can be done to close the present global gender gap in agriculture and build sustainable futures for women farmers?
McCain: Women play a critical and potentially transformative role in agriculture, especially in developing countries where they make up over 48 percent of the rural agricultural workforce. They also make a crucial contribution to nutrition and food security by feeding their families and contributing to their communities.
Nonetheless, women continue to face persistent obstacles and economic constraints. The FAO notes that, given the same tools as men, women could increase yields on their farms by 20–30 percent. This could raise total agricultural output in developing countries up to 4 percent, and production gains of this magnitude could reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 12–17 percent. That’s huge. We need to provide rural women and girls with greater access to the assets, resources, services, and opportunities that are available to men – especially land. Women still account for less than 15 percent of agricultural landholders in the world.
We know the promise women hold in agriculture, and we are acting on it. Empowerment of women is a strong focus of Feed the Future, the US food security initiative with programs equipping women with the right tools, training, and technology to increase their production, improve their storage, and give them access to markets.
In the same way, all FAO, IFAD, and WFP programs have a strong focus on women. Gender is an essential component of their work, providing extension services, technical and financial training, helping them to become successful producers, marketers, and entrepreneurs. If we want to improve our food systems to be more productive and sustainable, we must invest in women farmers.
IPS: According to the World Bank, between 88 and 115 million people are being pushed into poverty due to the COVID-19 pandemic crisis. In 2021, this number was expected to have risen to between 143 and 163 million. Millions of people worldwide have been suffering from food insecurity and different forms of malnutrition because they cannot afford the cost of healthy diets. What could be done to build resilience to such shocks?
McCain: To achieve lasting food security for everyone, even the world’s most vulnerable people, we must strengthen and safeguard the entire food system – the land, the local economies, the supply chain, the farmers, and the communities that all depend on one another to thrive. And we must reach for all the tools in the toolbox to build resilience and give people a chance to not just survive the emergencies but also grow and thrive in their wake.
That includes investing in cutting-edge technology, promoting climate-smart and water-efficient agricultural solutions, capitalizing on private-sector resources, expertise, and partnership, and improving access to financing, training, and markets. Building resilience, making our food systems more sustainable, doing more with less: this is the challenge before us, and it demands a united, global effort.
IPS: Conflict drives hunger. According to WFP data, there are almost 283 million people marching towards starvation, with 45 million knocking on famine’s door. Why do we urgently need humanitarian action towards the ongoing conflicts around the world?
McCain: We must continue to provide urgent humanitarian action to save lives wherever they are at risk. As you noted, conflict is the biggest driver of hunger around the world today. Sixty percent of the world’s hungry live in conflict areas. The food security situation is particularly dire in Yemen and South Sudan and in the northern areas of Ethiopia and Niger, where people are facing starvation. And now we have a rapidly unfolding crisis in Ukraine, to which USAID and the UN agencies are all responding with emergency assistance.
The Ukraine crisis also risks exacerbating hunger in other regions of the world as wheat supplies from one of the planet’s major breadbaskets are disrupted. That means markets must adjust, driving up the cost of wheat and other staples, which will affect relief operations in other parts of the world where people are desperately in need of food assistance. We must do our best to address and help resolve these conflicts by joining forces with other countries and the UN to push for diplomatic solutions.
IPS: The ongoing crisis in Ukraine is worsening every day, which could push thousands into a state of poverty and hunger. What are your thoughts on this?
McCain: Russia’s unprovoked and unjustified attack on Ukraine was a flagrant violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. It has unleashed a humanitarian crisis in the heart of Europe, with over 2.5 million refugees so far and probably many more to come. We have a longstanding partnership with the people of Ukraine and are very focused on the urgent humanitarian needs there.
The US Agency for International Development (USAID) has deployed a Disaster Assistance Response Team – our nation’s finest international emergency responders – to the region to support the Ukrainian people as they bear the brunt of Russian aggression.
On March 10, 2022, US Vice President Kamala Harris announced nearly $53 million in new humanitarian assistance from the United States government, through the USAID, to support innocent civilians affected by Russia’s unjustified invasion of Ukraine. This additional assistance includes support to the WFP to provide lifesaving emergency food assistance to meet the immediate needs of hundreds of thousands affected by the invasion, including people displaced from their homes and who are crossing the border out of Ukraine. In addition, it will support WFP’s logistics operations to move assistance into Ukraine, including to people in Kyiv.
The United States is the largest provider of humanitarian assistance to Ukraine and has provided $159 million in overall humanitarian assistance to Ukraine since October 2020, including nearly $107 million in the past two weeks in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This includes food, safe drinking water, shelter, emergency health care, and winterization services to communities affected by ongoing fighting.
IPS: Lastly, what is your take (personal thoughts) on your appointment by the Biden administration? Do you plan to visit some countries where the FAO, IFAD, and WFP are currently working? What are your thoughts on the current crisis in food and hunger, and what do you see happening by the end of your term? Are you optimistic?
McCain: I am honored President Biden appointed me to this role and very proud to be serving my country in my capacity as Ambassador to the UN Agencies in Rome. The work we do on food security here in Rome is crucial, and we need food security to be in the spotlight because, the fact is, everything else depends on it. I will be doing my best to bring the necessary attention to the challenges we are facing. It is time for food security to take center stage in global security discussions everywhere.
I do indeed plan to do many visits to the field to see FAO, IFAD, and WFP at work. In fact, I just returned from Madagascar, where a sustained drought is severely affecting the population in the south of the country, and to Kenya to see the work of our UN partners there.
Am I optimistic? Actually, I am. The momentum around food security right now gives me great hope. At the Munich Security Conference this year, food security was finally recognized as a crucial part of global security. I participated in a food security town hall – a first and definitely not the last – at the conference. The UN Food Systems Summit last fall was an important recognition that food security is a systemic issue, that we all must work together to ensure we have sustainable and equitable food systems. At that summit, the United States committed 10 billion US dollars towards food security efforts at home and abroad, 5 billion US dollars of which we’re investing through Feed the Future, America’s initiative to end hunger and malnutrition.
With the newly released Global Food Security Strategy to guide the United States’ efforts, we’re increasing investments in partnerships and innovation to catalyze inclusive agriculture-led growth, eradicate malnutrition, and help people adapt to the perils of climate change. There is a renewed focus on the need to address food insecurity, and we are putting tools in place to do just that.
Farhana Haque Rahman is Senior Vice President of IPS Inter Press Service and Executive Director IPS Noram; she served as the elected Director-General of IPS 2015-2019. A journalist and communications expert, she is a former senior official of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN and the International Fund for Agricultural Development.
Sania Farooqui is a New Delhi-based journalist, filmmaker, and host of The Sania Farooqui Show, where she regularly speaks to women who have made significant contributions bringing about socio-economic changes globally. She writes and reports regularly for IPS news wire.
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